Proofreaders: Art_emis, Gwen, krabbykabbi, Luzo, Mion, Pau, LSL, and Red
Cold Sands ch22
More of the epic saga in Ancient China!
There might even be a fashion lesson at the end ;)
Before me lie the portraits of every emperor of Great Rui. They are seated on the throne, lips pursed, wearing the Twelve Ornament Regalia of the Black Flying Dragon and crowned with the Pearl Crown while looking down with stony, emotionless eyes. Thin, long candles and incense burn quietly on the altar. Faint wisps of dark smoke draw spirals in the air. Grave candles flicker eerily on my two sides like wandering ghosts.
Chong Wen Palace is the place where the portraits of the Great Rui emperors are stored and is an extremely sacred place of the entire palace. No one can enter without permission therefore it’s as quiet as hell itself.
The sombre expressions of the emperors make me uneasy. The past seems to be embedded within those thin pieces of paper, telling the heavy and bloody history of the Lin clan’s path to power.
I stare dumbly at the dancing flames as if I have been disconnected from reality. My face is still stinging painfully from the slaps.
The empress dowager’s pressing voice is still resonating by my ears: “You good-for-nothing! I just knew you would try to escape!”
I was stopped by her personal guards at the manor and then brought back to Yong An Palace in shackles.
“You knave!” was what greeted me when I stepped in.
Then she slapped me right across the face. My ears rang and my face started burning, her nails having made bloody streaks on my cheeks.
Immediately, I looked up only to see her stormy expression and before I knew it she slapped me again. “You useless coward!”
I didn’t speak or move and just let her hit me and yell at me.
Finally, she got tired and backed away to her throne, panting while scrutinizing me.
“I will ask you one more time. Yes or no?”
“You whoreson! Good-for-nothing!”
She picked up a teacup from the table and hurled it at me. I tilted my head and it brushed past my cheek, crashing into the ground, shattering into a million pieces.
“Do you not have any ambition whatsoever?!”
I spoke flatly. “We all have our aspirations, and not even You, Your Graciousness, can alter them.”
“So you are telling me you don’t want to be the ruler, and you don’t want to be a son of the rich?” She glared at me. “You only want to be a peasant?”
I dropped on my knees. “Precisely, Your Graciousness. I do not desire wealth or power. I beg that You grant me a way out.”
Her eyes were icy and full of emotional turmoil like a blizzard. The hall was dead silent.
After a while, she got up, regaining her previous posture of a high-class noble lady. She walked up to me, her long sleeves dangling, swinging before my eyes.
Suddenly, she smiled, her cold forty year-old complexion still brilliant. “I suppose you won’t be needing this if you were a peasant!” Saying this, she raised her arm. I caught on to what she was trying to do and lunged forward, grabbing her legs. “No, Empress Dowager, don’t!”
In her hand was none other than the emerald green twin panlong.
“Didn’t you say you wanted to be a peasant?” She looked down at me with a cruel smirk. “A peasant would not have a panlong pendant, now would they? I am only thinking on your behalf.”
I held onto her legs, barely keeping myself up while my body started cooling down.
“But then again,” she raised the pendant up, studying it. “I don’t have to break it. The son of Duke Zhao Rui has been missing for so many years that no one would know who he is.”
I stared straight at her with nothing else to say. She looked like a stranger to me.
“If you don’t want to be the son of Duke Zhao Rui, there will be plenty of others who do. Han Xin, did you really think you could best me?”
She tipped her head back gracefully, smiling. “Duke Zhao Rui was a legendary hero yet his son is a lowlife who only wants to be a peasant!” Then she kicked me away with a look of disdain. “My niece died for nothing, too. I bet she never thought her son would be such a wimp.”
“Your Graciousness,” I crawled up from the ground, flashing a wry smile. “You’re leaving me no choice here.”
Turning away, she ignored me and I watched her thin, white figure walk towards the hall doors. “Guards! Escort Han Xin to Chong Wen Palace!”
As the doors of Chong Wen Palace were closing, I saw her standing outside. Her face was pale and the vermillion bindi only made her look all the more grave.
“Han Xin, I am going to give you one day’s time!”
I have no idea what time it is now. Neither do I know how long I’ve been in here. I peer to the side to see little sparks sprouting from the candle before Emperor Shun’s portrait at the far end. Only then do I have a sense of time.
I’m only able to sort everything out after I’ve calmed down.
The act of choosing me, the son of a traitor, to be heir over the other two proper sons reeks of her and Uncle’s long-term calculations.
The Han clan has held control of the court for so long. If one of those two kids were to become emperor, then it would still be the maternal relatives who are in control and under the current weakening state, there will surely be an uproar across the nation.
I’m just an incompetent rich kid who knows nothing—everyone knows this. If I became emperor, it would shut everyone up and I’d be easy to control.
Those eyeing the throne could easily take it from a juvenile emperor after amassing the right amount of power. If it were a mature successor, the conspirator wouldn’t act so hastily in fear of being shamed by the people.
And as long as the emperor is of adult age, even if he were a puppet, the crime of leading the country into annihilation would not go to them.
I hug my knees, chuckling drily, a complicated feeling filling my chest.
Suddenly, this all seems so ridiculous and pathetic that tears start streaming down my face.
I just wanted to be left out. All I wanted was to be normal, to live my own life. But things just happened. My past gets uncovered and I get pushed down a path I loathe.
I didn’t want to get involved in their foul and corrupt political fight but now I’ve become a pawn in the empress dowager’s power game; I didn’t want any so-called glory or authority but now I’m being forced to become the supreme ruler.
The freedom that I have been yearning for has become the most ironic ridicule.
I lower my head, too afraid to look anymore.
The empress dowager had asked me if I had the blood and pride of a royalty and I had shaken my head. I don’t know. I really don’t know. Royalty is a term that seems so far, so high above me. I’ve long forgotten what pride is and what nobility is after twelve years of lies and deceits. The cowardice of the royal family has been accumulating for so long and now they want the son of a traitor to sustain the royal pride and valour? It would be less offensive if they slapped every member of the royal family across the face.
I glance over every single portrait of the emperors—Emperor Shun, arrogant and lordly; Emperor Cheng, reserved and resolute; Emperor Ming, majestic and spirited; Emperor Mu, sophisticated and charming; finally, Emperor Wen’s miserable smile right before departing this life.
What if…. What would my destiny be if I really became emperor?
Would I expand our territories like Emperor Shun did? Would I lead our country to an era of prosperity like Emperor Cheng did? Would I be talented in the arts as Emperor Mu was? Or would I only end up as a puppet and die with regrets like Emperor Wen did?
Or maybe I would become the sinner of Great Rui when the country falls and get shamed on for generations to come?
I stare at the jumping flames without a word.
Father, what was it that made you so determined to start a rebellion? Was it for your own desires? Or was it really to maintain the pride and valour of the royal blood, to protect the name of the royal family?
Your son isn’t as courageous as you. He’s only thinking about himself when the country is suffering and the royal family is weak.
Could you please tell him what to do?
The candlelight before me starts to fade out and the blood-strewn battlefield materialises.
Soldiers are moaning beneath horse hooves, crying out in pain. Keen metal pierces through flesh with a muffled sound. Thick blood snakes out, slowly soaking through the soil. Hellfire has engulfed the villages and fields and is reaching for the sky. Widows and orphans let out heartrending weeps while the old and young starve or freeze to death. Corpses line the streets and wild beasts are gnawing away at them. What was originally a home where people worked and lived just a moment ago has become a living hell.
I shut my eyes, too scared to think any further of the scenes that appeared before me.
If the day really comes when the Yan army storms through the walls, then the capital will become a living hell, the men slaughtered, the women assaulted, the entire country groaning in pain beneath the Yan cavalry.
‘Twelve years. If only he had succeeded twelve years ago, Great Rui wouldn’t be what it is today….’
‘Great Rui’s establishment was based on scholarship; many of the royals are scholars. But only him, only he was skilled in martial arts, if only he was the emperor now, if only….’
I finally understand what Duke Yu Qing was wishing for before passing away.
Father has passed away. I’m his son so I have to shoulder everything. Is this really my so-called fate?
The sorry state of Great Rui has made me understand Father’s choice.
Even though he knew there probably would be no turning back from the bottomless pit, he pushed onward without hesitation. And Mother wasn’t afraid: she was right behind him no matter where he was headed, even if it were Armageddon.
Father, even though he did not succeed, had defended the dignity of the royal family.
Before I know it, my face has become wet with tears.
Father, if you were here, Father, you would want me to brace the tidal waves and take control over the empire without a second thought even if there was a way out.
I smile in self-pity as teardrops slip out of my eyes.
Is this my fate?
Inside the still inner hall, I curl up into a ball with my back against Emperor Shun’s portrait and stay there quietly. I’ve gone through so many challenges and near-death experiences but this time I won’t be able to make it.
Time slips past in the stillness and I drift to sleep.
In my dream, there are no parents, no friends, no relatives, only me and myself.
Suddenly, I’m being shaken by someone. Dazedly, I blink my eyes. I look at the person but my mind is hazy and I can’t recognize who it is.
Maid Xiu is kneeling in front of me with a disconcerted look. Her eyes redden before she gets a word out. I bite on my lip as I gaze at her worried complexion and my eyes start to burn and my vision blurs.
She reaches out with shaking hands to touch the side of my head. “I have been waiting for this day to come.”
“Maid Xiu.” I pull my legs in, laying my head on my knees. I force a smile as I look at her at an angle. “You’ve always known, haven’t you?”
She bites on her lips and tears well up in her eyes. “The duke and duchess can finally rest in peace now.”
Tears flow down my cheeks. She reaches out tenderly and wipes them away for me. “You liked to cry when you were young. Are you still going to cry now that you’re going to be the emperor?”
I chuckle. “Why must you all make me do this?”
She stays quiet for a while as her tears hit the polished tiles. “It is your destiny.”
My destiny. My destiny, huh. I suddenly feel drained, my heart having plunged down a cliff.
Her tears keep flowing. “If you don’t become emperor then how will the duke and duchess ever get their justice? Do you want the duke to be shamed as a sinner forever? When would he ever get his name cleared otherwise?”
My eyes feel so sore and my chest seems to be weighed down and suffocated by a boulder. The tears linger in my eyes, not making it out.
“When you were little,” she recounts hollowly. “The duke and duchess often joked, saying our boy would be a legendary champion and conquer the world. The duke’s biggest wish was for you to achieve the greatest and make your name known to the world!”
I can’t form words as if I’ve been struck by lightning.
I have lived in ignorance for twelve years, not only ignorant of my parents but also going against their wishes.
She wraps her arms around me, bringing my head to her lap. She bends down as she smiles affectionately with teary eyes. A faint smell of wild ginger flowers wafts from her clothes. It smells just like Mother.
“When you were little, you loved to play. And when you got tired from playing you would lie on the duchess’ lap like this so she couldn’t do anything else. She often complained but she looked so happy.”
“The duke taught you to read and martial arts but you always slacked off. The duke would try to punish you but you would go hide behind the duchess. He would get so frustrated but he couldn’t do anything….”
“Springtime in April, they would take you out to the countryside….”
“You just loved boating in the summer and the duke and duchess would accompany you until late into the night….”
Out from her mouth come strings of stories, revealing the past and uncovering my deepest scars, and the bloody fragments come flying straight at me.
My eyes flicker restlessly as I gaze at the ceiling. “Is being emperor really that big of a deal?” I mumble.
Maid Xiu pats my back lovingly. “I’ve said it already. Only if you become emperor can you clear their names; only if you become emperor can you overlook this realm; only if you become emperor can you turn things around and rescue the nation.”
Tears obscure my vision once more.
And this time, I finally understand.
My destiny never belonged to me. Never has, never will.
My parents died, leaving me as their only hope; the country is on the brink of destruction and disaster is about to strike, and I must shoulder everything. If I had to blame something, it would have to be the royal blood that flows through me. But how could I have chosen my own birth?
I let out a laugh of despair. It echoes in the empty hall. I laugh until tears come out. The founding emperor, Emperor Shun, scrutinizes me silently without a word.
That eight year old had no idea that life would be this unpredictable, that his life had been decided for him, and that no matter the challenges and trials he would face, he would one day ascend the throne.
‘The rainbow in the sky; the aroma in the room; the purple clouds in midair; the golden dragon in flight.’
My entire life had already been set in stone by those twenty words.
I’ve never once felt before that the palace was this freezing cold and that it was this menacing and sinister.
In between the ornate beams and pillars, the splendid roofs and swaying curtains of Chong Wen Palace, I can almost glimpse the spirits of the emperors. They are rushing to step out of their portraits to stand before me. They are looking down at me, at this descendant of theirs, to see what I will choose. Will I accept my destiny and save the country or will I choose to be stubborn and let myself go?
Master Liao has always said in his teachings that the victor becomes king while the defeated becomes the sinner. Even the most glorious royal families could go extinct in an instant.
If I remain stubborn and unwilling to accept, then the empress dowager will be wary of my existence and make sure that I don’t make it out of the royal city alive. I think a devious woman like her would be capable of doing that.
Slowly, I sit up straight and silently face Emperor Shun’s portrait.
Ancestors of the Lin clan, is this your punishment for me?
The candle in front of him flickers, embers bursting forth, and suddenly goes out.
The sky has begun to whiten, casting the faint morning glow through the windows. Wordlessly, Maid Xiu gets up and drops on her knees behind me.
I speak through clipped lips. “Maid Xiu, it was the empress dowager’s idea for you to come, too, right?”
She quickly kowtows, pressing her forehead to the floor. “But the words were from the bottom of my heart!”
Footsteps disturb the stillness. There is more than one pair. Messy and sporadic, it holds within it the heavy scraping of boots and the clinking of armour and weapons. Maid Xiu looks up at me with fixed eyes.
Alas, they’ve come.
The doors are pushed open with a bang. An emotionless senior attendant who serves the empress dowager strides in and stops while many fully armed soldiers rush in from behind. Another attendant steps out from behind holding a cup of wine with his head bowed. I get up without a word and turn to face them.
The older attendant asks in a sharp voice. “Have you reached a decision?”
Tiny flakes of gold float in the amber wine. Gold flaked wine—the generous demise bestowed upon royalty. I glance at the cup and sneer. I’m so flattered.
Maid Xiu lets out a sorrowful weep as she lies on the floor quivering.
The attendant squints as he scrutinizes me. I scoff and knock the cup down. The amber wine splashes on the ground and the gold cup tumbles away. The soldiers immediately step forward and unsheathe their swords halfway.
“Eunuch,” I call out. “You are no longer needed.”
He lowers his head with a knowing smile and steps aside. A soldier who had been behind him strides forth with a bowed head, holding a scarlet tray, and bows down on one knee. They are all young, able-bodied men wearing bright red armour, a dark red cape and a helmet with red feathers. On the tray is a black Nine Ornament Regalia and a dragon soars within with its claws drawn. There is also a Nine Pearl Crown, the nine strings of pearls clinking against each other.
“May I implore that Your Majesty change into the ceremonial raiment? The empress dowager is waiting.” The attendant requests respectfully.
Alas, my fate has finally come.
I reach out and touch the robe without speaking.
Then I guffaw, pick up the robe, unfurling it, and put it on myself. Cautiously, the attendants assist me with the robe. They place the crown on with such care as though they were serving the emperor. I hold myself upright and let them dress me.
The soldiers open the palace doors and bow down at the waist. I stride out. The sun has risen, the dawn light hitting me on the face.
Everything that follows is a bit of a blur. The empress dowager summons the officials and announces: ‘The eldest son of Duke Zhao Rui.’
‘The son is also a descendant of Emperor Ming,’ she says. ‘The young child was not to be blamed for the duke’s treachery. Given the current state of affairs, he is the closest descendant and he is clever, quick and skilled, thus I name him the successor in hopes of continuing the empire.’
I laugh when she says this. The history is always written by the victor. Oh, how unjust my father’s death was!
All the officials express agreement. Heng Ziyu submits as well. But I catch him raising his head as he kneels down and shooting me a cold and playful look.
The Sixth Year of Nan Jing, Emperor Wen returned to heaven.
In less than a month, the successor ascended the throne.
On the tenth day of the tenth month, an auspicious day, the ceremony of ascension for the new emperor took place at Tai Qing Palace.
The Sun shone brightly and the sky was solid azure.
Music is reverberating throughout the royal city. The princes, dukes and officials have gathered at the bottom of the steps of Tai Qing Palace to welcome me with the kowtow ceremony. After three whip cracks, the Minister of Rites steps forth and reads the empress dowager’s decree on his knees. The Archduke, Han Jun, and the Protector of the Seas, Heng Ziyu, lead the three kneeling and nine knockings ceremony.
The ascension ceremony is being held at Tai Qing Palace. The flag of the Lin clan billows in the air. Ceremonial incense burns from a massive censer.
Wearing the Twelve Ornament Regalia and Twelve Pearl Crown, I stand amidst swirls of aromatic smoke at the bottom of the steps. I tilt my head back a little.
With the azure Welkin as background, the main building of the royal city, Tai Qing Palace, is well-defined and seems all the more gigantic and majestic. The towering steps are carpeted with bright red silk all the way to the very top, seeming almost endless. The square behind me is lined with officials flattened to the ground on their hands and knees, not making a sound.
I’m standing here yet I feel lonely for some reason.
Han Xin—or should I say Lin Xin—are you really ready for this?
Finally, I step onto the red silk and ascend the steps.
The people at my two sides bow and kneel down as I pass, lowering their heads and holding their breaths.
The pearls of the crown swing before my eyes, clinking furiously. The October sunlight is dazzling and blinds me as it dances off of the beads. My eyes water and everything I see through the glaring halo seems so transient and surreal.
With the blaring drums and acoustics and the melodious voices of court singers, why is it that I feel this overwhelming loneliness?
The steps seem to be boundless. The people beside me are still kneeling down in turn like a wave.
I look up only to see a figure in dark green. It’s the empress dowager. She’s dressed in a pheasant plume regalia and a Nine Dragon Nine Phoenix Pearl and Emerald Crown. The intricate and splendid layers, the wide sleeves, the broad belt, the exquisite embroidery on the dark green gown and the brilliant cosmetics make her look extraordinary. She maintains a calm face, showing not one bit of fatigue or sorrow but only the strength that no ordinary woman could come close to matching.
I inhale deeply before lifting up my regalia and continue my slow climb.
Now that it has come to this, I cannot be vulnerable or hesitant. An emperor is always august and self-possessed.
I hold myself straight and my head high and remain this way as I approach the top, unflustered and dignified. It’s as if I were born a king: I display all the etiquette and comportment that a king should have precisely and absolutely.
When I finally reach the top of the elevated steps of Tai Qing Palace, I quietly look down at everything below me. The entire royal city lies before my eyes, the beauty of the capital, too, and the blurred ebony mountains in the distance as well. I can actually see beyond the land straight to the frontiers out in the desert.
The howling wind whips by my ears. White birds flutter trippingly across the horizon like white shooting stars. They cry out crisp notes before disappearing into the clouds.
I wonder if Emperor Wen has reincarnated into the commoner’s world and will lead the free life of a peasant as he had wished.
By now, freedom is something I can only reach for in my dreams.
The empress dowager gently calls from behind. I glance back to see her nodding at me, signalling with her eyes. I pull a smile and move my gaze back to the square. Raising my arms, I regard them all—all of the cowering officials at the bottom of the steps and all of my subjects in this land—with a smile.
“Long live the emperor!”
“May he live ten thousand years!”
“And ten thousand more!”
The subjects exclaim at the top of their lungs. The lasting echoes resonate in every corner of the royal city, reaching up to the heavens and startling flocks of birds. Their ceremonial gowns and fancy belts flitter in the wind, appearing like one massive ocean wave.
The wind is slightly chilly and lifts the edges of my garments into the air. The exquisite beads hanging from the crown have also been disturbed and are tinkling nonstop.
A bronze bell is rung. High-spirited notes blast forth from horns, low and dissonant.
The red sun has risen high above the horizon, radiating continual rays that dab golden brilliance upon the realm.
This unreachable place has been one of curiosity for me for twenty years. I’ve seen countless times on the roofs of Tai Qing Palace life’s complexity, zest, sadness, joy, farewells, reunions, happiness, anger and everything in between, but who would have known that one day I would be standing here with the entire nation beneath my feet, beholding the land as the almighty emperor.
Emperor Wu of Han (left) and Wanli Emperor of Ming (right), dressed in ceremonial regalia.
(//o\\) I just had to include these. They're just so cute~
Portrait of Empress Wang Xijie (left). This is the empress dowager's regalia in this chapter.
While we're at it, let's take a look at some other clothing of characters in the story.
First up, palace guards' uniform (left) and Rank One officials' court uniform (right).
Next up, palace maids' uniform and attendants' uniform.
Dairytea's comment: Oh gosh, I could feel the tension that's building up! Poor Han Xin~
=> Look forward to oodles of releases next week in celebration of St. Patrick's Day! *is excited*
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Cold Sands - English Translation by ayszhang is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.